Intrigued by the well-documented drama which dogged the cast throughout their pre-release press junkets, not to mention the viral clips of Styles’ bid for Academy gold, I found myself toddling down to Curzon to investigate, much as you might find yourself unable to look away from a car crash. And a car crash it certainly was – a film where the hype behind Olivia Wilde’s lauded directorial debut – ‘Booksmart’ clearly meant a studio had handed her a ridiculous budget and not enough people said ‘no’. The premise of the film is one that lends itself well to the feminist lens that made ‘Booksmart’ such a runaway hit – but where the feminist message of that film was so successfully fresh, ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ falls back on tired cliches that it simultaneously fails to fully investigate.
Set around the idyllic desert suburb of Victory, CA – a company town attached to the mysterious, male-run Victory Project – and the equally picturesque white-picket-fence lives of its inhabitants, the plot derives from housewife Alice’s (Pugh) suspicions that all – including her husband, Jack (Styles) is not what it seems – I won’t spoil the twist for you – apart from to say it was so abrupt and so shallow that it left me with far more questions than it answered.
So far, so feminist – the idea of the gaslit housewife is admittedly a classic. And this is the problem – the film doesn’t really build upon a concept that was so masterfully updated by 2004’s ‘Stepford Wives’. The feminist aspects feel flat and forced – intersectionality, for example is out the window – in ‘Stepford Wives’ the director managed to find a way to make the creepy suburbia aesthetic gel with two of the main characters are a gay man and a Jewish woman, whereas the only notable character of colour (Margaret) in Wilde’s world is a silent secondary character, whose suffering serves to help aid Alice’s quest for the truth about her situation. Is this necessarily racist ? Perhaps not, but something which really rattled me was the absolute state of Margaret’s (KiKi Layne) hair , which jarred with the otherwise excellent costume and hair design – and which is often due to employing stylists who don’t know how to work with Afro hair. Notable, too, is Wilde’s infamous implication that the film is empowering because we only see female characters orgasm. It rings extremely hollow against the framing of Jack’s cluelessness in the kitchen as adorkably endearing, and is further undermined by Styles’ acting ability restraining these performances to what could best be called ‘performative head’ – which, in turn, doesn’t actually add anything to the film apart from buffing its feminist veneer. This faux-feminist vibe isn’t helped by the choice to have the noise which indicates that you ought to feel that tension is rising (the film is also horribly guilty of using its soundtrack as a baby-rein rather than a prompt) be largely composed of a blur of distorted female panting and moaning – you get the impression that it was intended to be a feminist statement, somehow – but a statement of what, exactly ?
It’s worth mentioning that the film is visually very beautiful – amazing camera-work and thoughtful production design, but the crisp lushness of the mid century modern aesthetic fails to leaven the damp lump of a plot, much in the same way that the stellar turns given by Pugh, Layne, Pine and Wilde herself fail to negate whatever Styles thought he was doing. His performance in the film has already been throughly eviscerated online, and I see no point in rehashing the same criticisms – but let me add that the climax points of his most serious an-ger-y scenes provoked audible laughter from the cinema I was sat in.
So overall, it really was a dizzying rollercoaster of highs and lows – perhaps averaging out to a film less bad than its harshest critics would have you think, though the capital-F feminist vibe was rather disappointing. If you want a laugh, feel free to go and see it – but if you’d rather see the suburban gothic done right, go see ‘Stepford Wives’.